GARDNER, Massachusetts (Reuters) - In Massachusetts, places like Mount Wachusett Community College are on the front line in the effort to bolster education for adults. Located in the former chair-making hub of Gardner, the college has seen a flood of students since the financial crisis struck in 2007.
Enrollment is at a record 12,300 students, but state aid has shrunk from about two-thirds of the budget to about a quarter in the past decade. So, Mount Wachusett raised fees. Over the past four years, the loan burden shouldered by the average student seeking an associate's degree has doubled to $8,000.
Courses are nonetheless heavily oversubscribed for nurses and lab technicians, who have a clear path to a well-paid job. Five hundred people applied for 98 nursing-course spots this year. Requirements included at least a B-plus in chemistry and some health care experience.
On a Thursday morning in July, Jennifer Forgues attended a clinical technician class with her young daughter in tow. The 27-year-old Massachusetts native had lost her job as an assistant service manager at a car dealership in Ohio when she was seven months pregnant. She moved back in with her mother in the Gardner area.
Forgues had decided not to go to college after high school in nearby Winchendon in 2002. Her parents - an accountant and a plant manager - made too much for her to qualify for financial aid, she said, but not enough to easily afford college. "I felt bad if my parents did scrape enough money together to let me go that I would be wasting the money, because I had no idea what I wanted to be," she said.
The course work paid off. By October, Forgues had landed a job as a technician in a microbiology lab at a hospital in nearby Worcester, paying $41,000 a year with health benefits. "It's been a rough few years but I made it out alive," she said.
Adult-education successes can come with asterisks. Patrick Armstrong, 41, lost his job as a senior project scientist at an environmental consultancy in 2009. The father of two was accepted into a state training program run out of the Leominster campus. He had to pick carefully: The state would pay for one shot. If he selected the wrong field and failed to find work, he was out of luck.
Armstrong chose a one-year program granting a certificate in biotechnology to augment his associate's degree in environmental science. He and his wife scaled back, selling one of their two cars and pulling their children out of daycare. After a nerve-wracking search, he got a job as a technician at a large biotech-manufacturing plant in central Massachusetts. It was a 25 percent pay cut to around $50,000. He didn't care.
"When I got the offer sheet and was walking back to my truck, I just started laughing uncontrollably with relief," Armstrong said. He plans to stick to his scaled-back, one-car lifestyle. "I know now how precarious a position in the middle class can be. And how difficult it is to get back in."
The state's retraining regimens are small in scope. In north central Massachusetts, 116 people were enrolled in the retraining program Armstrong took in the year ending June 30. It's a drop in the bucket: About 9,700 people were unemployed in the area in July. The cost is substantial: about $8,400 per person.
Democrats say the answer is more and better training. Greg Bialecki, secretary of housing and economic development, said the state has only been "chipping away" at retraining workers due to budgetary constraints. He estimated that "easily 10,000" of the open jobs in Massachusetts could be filled if unemployed workers received six months of training. A broader effort to build a more skilled workforce would involve $20 million in additional funding to community colleges and job training centers.
"It would be great if we were able to say we could make a big commitment," he said. "Manufacturing, health care, IT, life sciences, let's focus on those sectors."
Massachusetts Republicans also back an increase in vocational training. But additional funding should come through corporate partnerships with community colleges, they say. And vocational schools need to work much more closely with private companies, so that students have the skills businesses actually need.
"Job training programs for adults in Massachusetts are all over the place, because we haven't crafted coherent measures of success," said Jim Stergios, head of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank. "Yet hundreds of millions get spent on them."
(Reporting By David Rohde; Edited by Michael Williams)